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Good Data for Good Government - and plans for the Universal Credit

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Last night Stephen Timms addressed the IT Chapter of the Institute of Chartered Accountants. His audience was a mix of IT and Accounting Professionals, including members of the Chartered Institute of Taxation. Readers of this blog will know my concerns over the implementation plans for the Universal Credit but I have focussed on those of DWP. In the course of his speech Stephen, as a former Financial Secretary to the Treasury and sometime IT professional, took an equally cool look at the HMRC side of the project: the plans for Real Time Information on PAYE and their effect on small firms and their willingness to employ staff who might well be on the margins of employment - those who the Universal Credit is intended to help into the world of work.


I do not agree with all that he said. You would be surprised if I did. But I do recommend that you read his word in full (see below) particularly his comments on where the blame should lie - with those who told ministers they could deliver the impossible (that is my rewording of what he said more politely).  I personally believe that applies even more to the external consultants and suppliers paid to supplement the skills of officials who knew they were out of their depth.   


But that is enough from me. Thank you to Stephen for permission to reproduce his words in full.

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Which cyber-topics will feature at the Party Conferences

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As the three main party's implode into a period of soul searching, wondering why their faithful have drifted away, what topics are the lobbyists promoting to those who attend their annual fund-raising events?   

A quick scan of the exbition guides and fringe listings indicates that the lobbyists main priorities are:

  • energy: particularly subsidies for windmills and nuclear
  • the use of social media and networking for political campaigning
  • digital skills programmes: education, schools, universities etc.
  • encouraging the further outsourcing of service delivery (including but, not just IT).
  • privacy and surveillance policy (albeit driven by civil liberties rather than corporate lobbyists).

I could find little on the use of IT to help improve service delivery - except for education or in the context of promoting further outsourcing. More suprisingly there appear to be no broadband events - except for the Next Gen event in London while the Conservatives are in Birmingham.    

The only directly IT-related event, apart from the Big Brother Watch meetings on the Comunications Data Bill, is the Conservative Technology Forum meeting to put Smart Meters and Smart Grid policy into the context of a converged 21st Century Smart Infrastructure (including ubiquitous broadband to support ubiquitous computing and communications for the Internet of Things).

That meeting appears likely to be one of the few with two Ministerial speakers (one current, one former) that is not commercially sponsored. The reason is probably that none of the lobbyists can find out, or influence, what is to be said by the speakers. I am chairman of the CTF and I do not know, although I sat in on most of the discussion meetings and have seen earlier drafts of the policy proposals to be presented for comment. I should perhaps add that I delegated the organisation of the policy paper and the meeting to those who understand that subject much better than I - and look forward to listening and learning. Most sponsors would, however, be more fearful of things being said which did not fit their current lobbying position than would appreciate the benefits of being seen to support genuinely open discussion.  

That leads me to the question of whether Party Conferences should be an annual lobbying exercise or a rally of the faithful. If they are primarily a rally of the faithful, should it be to listen to their leaders, for their leaders to listen to them or for leaders and followers to try engage in genuine dialogue?

The use of IT to improve service delivery may no longer be a headline item in the mainstream or fringe programmes this year, but it is likely to be a serious topic of conversation elsewhere at the Conservative Party Conference - perhaps more robustly than many lobbyists would like. One of the welcome innovations this year is a series of Conservative Policy Forum meetings for party activists to discuss what matters to them them.

The CPF has a surprising number of former information systems and project management professionals in membership, possibly because of the "downsizing" of the UK IT industry over the past twenty years.  Many have strong views on how to get better for money than by paying 30% (or more) over the odds from that small number of dominant suppliers who spend tens of £billions p.a. on behalf of central government. Unfortunately their analyses of what went wrong and why are often better than their ability to suggest realistic ways forward. 

Microsoft (one of that minority of suppliers which still takes support for long-term "public affairs", as opposed to short-term "government sales support" seriously) recently hosted a very well-informed Conservative Technology Forum round table on the politics of co-operation in service delivery. This indicated the scale of change in prospect as we attempt to refine gold standard information from the toxic sludge that is current public sector "Big Data" in order to support the delivery of better targetted public services. We agreed to return to this topic after the Conference. I then hope to balance the inputs (derived from far better informed and profound thinking than I had anticpated) from Microsoft with those from others who are equally serious about responding to change rather than trying to prevent it.      

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Is DWP herding the vulnerable on-line, to be fleeced ?

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Next week will see the 2012 National Digital Conference with over a thousand delegates exploring "the policy, leadership, innovation and collective action needed to support an inclusive and enterprising digital nation". The state of current debates over electronic identities and payment mechanisms, let alone of those over data protection, privacy and security, indicates that inclusion and innovation will be almost the last things in the minds of those seeking to herd the sheep on-line to be fleeced. Whether the fleecing is to be done by the purveyors of technology, regulatory or compliance snake oil or by local and global organised crime, no-one appears to be giving priority to quality of service to paying customers. 

One of those planning to attend the National Digital Conference sent me the following guest blog. I have changed the heading from his original "Please sign here - but not at the Post Office." and put his message into political context, but it is stark

The DWP has, whether by accident or design, created a situation whereby some of the most  vulnerable in society, with least access to reliable on-line services (if they could see or manage the dexterity to use them) are no longer able to use their local Post Office, where they can deal with staff they know and who know them, but must travel miles to a Paypoint  to use a less secure service. In rural areas, with few buses and expensive taxis, the increase in cost and the deterioration in quality of life flies unnecessarily in the face of declared government policy. Worse, it will be blamed, unjustly, on current ministers and their enthusiasm for using new technology to deliver better service at lower cost. 

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A genuinely transformative budget measure: hands-on ministerial acceptance tests

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One paragraph in Item 1.224 in the section of the Budget papers on  "Reforms to support growth" more than makes up for my disappointment with what was not in the budget.

Section 1224 reads as follows:

"The Government is setting an ambition to make the UK the technology hub of Europe. To support technological innovation and help the digital, creative and other high technology industries the government will ...."

There follows a rag bag of initiatives, some of which may do some good, others of which are a waste of taxpayers funds. One diamond, however, sparkles amid the dross:

"... will transform the quality of digital public services by committing that from 2014 new online services will only go live if the responsible minister can demonstrate that they can themselves use the service successfully".

Will that mean a clean out of those ministers without post graduate qualifications in handling non-intuitive, man-machine interfaces?

Does it set a deadline of 2014 for the current crop of contractors to introduce on-line services, because after that they will face an acceptance test that they are almost guaranteed to fail?    
In the spring of 1971 my task was to help specify the processes to put on-line the sales ledger systems that I had just decimalised. In 1976, I was Sector Comptroller for Public Corporations when responsibility for debt chasing was devolved from the central financial services operation to the sales teams. My staff discovered that I had specified the system they now had to use. That on-line system had indeed been supposed to be capable of being used by the Finance Director - but nobody ever suggested he should be part of the acceptance testing.

Some-one clearly enjoyed slipping this recommendation in amongst the verbiage.

I could not care whether or not most of the other recommendations in the technology session of the Budget are implemented - but I very much hope that the Chancellor, Cabinet Office and relevant Commons and Lords Select Committees routinely ask to see the Minister's acceptance report - and they are available for all to see. And I look forward to Cabinet Ministers insisting that their Permanent Secretary goes first, before the junior minister who draws the short straw.
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Government Shared Services: tunnel vision or myopia: did the authors read the evidence to the PASC enquiry?

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The day after the PASC report "Government IT: a recipe for rip-off"  we have the release of the strategic vision for Government shared Services . The good news is that it is very short so there is no excuse for not reading it.

The bad news is the mix of tunnel vision, inconsistancy and myopia in the "lessons learned" to date and the consequent two part strategy. There is a need for robust input to the Cabinet Office ERG team looking at plans to migrate to the future "model" lest this grow into another "rip-off".

Lessons 1 and 5) simplify to a contradiction. independence is an important incentive but efficiency gains are proportionate to the level of mandation. If you have to "compel" then it is probable that the incentives are wrong, or the policy is wrong, or both.

Lesson 2) Delivery of shared services is no more a core Government skill than the delivery of anything else, but Government has greater potential for economies of scale than anyone in the private sector. Most of the savings form shared services relate to HR and Payroll. The private sector has outsourced these because of the complexity of government imposed tax and employment legislation. The savings from a holistic approach to simplification and standardisation in co-operation with a panel of major private sector employers (not consultants) would be worth a tax cut of tens of billions in helping stimulate UK economic recovery - as well as cutting tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions from HMG spend.

Lesson 3) Charging structures are indeed one of the main excuses for not sharing services across departments - but that is because of the lack of incentives for finding efficient and equitable solutions compared to those for resisting change. The answer is to change the blance by providing more interesting, secure and/or better paid futures for all who help.

Lesson 4) Shared services do indeed comprise a range of standardised components - and the way to bring this about is to focus on inter-operability standards so that the components currently available can be brought together in solutions that evolve over time.

There is also a need to look at the lessons from local government and  the private sector with regard to those "sharing" exercises which led to improved service at lower cost and those which did not. There is also the experience of major private sector players like IBM, which came back from near death by spinning out, rather than outsourcing, functions that were not core to its business. The motivational effects of such a policy are very different. So too is the subsequent quality of service.  


How to prevent the DWP Universal Credit from being yet another doomed IT project

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The coalition government has said that the days of big IT projects are gone. But IT projects do not come much bigger than the DWP plans for a Universal Credit. How can we ensure that it is as successful as the original computerisation of PAYE under Nigel Lawson and Steve Matheson? I have covered the reasons for that success several times. Most recently in a blog last year. But time has moved on and an additional idea, not really practical in the early 1980s, may help ensure that the Universal Credit is a similar success.

Does centralised ICT procurement give better value?

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Ministers are talking of massive decentralisation to save money except for procurement where there are supposedly massive savings from bulk buying or ICT, where the savings from systems inter-operability and the re-use of previously purchased software can be substantial. But are such savings, incluidng with regard to ICT, more than wiped out by the tiers of overhead and inflexibility along the supply chain? 

Is government about to be transformed?

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The Cabinet Office draft structural reform plan is curiously unambitious in some areas (for example the £6 billion savings targets set for the Efficiency and Reform Group) and  centralist in others. This implies a risk that the Return of the Jedi will indeed be followed by "The Empire Strikes Back", rather than the other way round. Thus the plan is to abolish or bring back in house those Quangos which are not technical, transparent or impartial. There appears to have been no option of removing their statutory powers and leaving them to sink or swim as self-funding co-operatives, competing to provide services valued by those running front line delivery. Instead some of these look set to fall through expensive cracks, as functions valued by no-one, as well as those which should never have be devolved, are transfered back to departments whose previous failures led to the rise of the quangocracy in the first place. 

How many UK Public Sector IT suppliers will survive the cuts?

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What do you call an industry which does not plan for the inevitable? Like Y2K the cuts in ICT spend announced yesterday were inevitable. What was not inevitable was the rush of buyers and suppliers into a final round of big-bang deals that were bad value for taxpayers and shareholders alike and will have to be unscrambled.  Rather than bemoan the reasons why ICT turned from White Knight into Whipping Boy I would would prefer to ask "How many suppliers have the wit and will to help turn a potentially terminal crisis for their UK public sector operations into an uprecedented opportunity for mutually beneficial change?"  



How can UK ICT suppliers survive the coming cuts?

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In the early 1980s I had to turn round the NCC Microsystems Centre when the DTI funding vanished in a typical government double-counting operation. My staff - I merely encouraged them - managed to stop the bleeding and to grow the operation, on positive cash flow, at 80% p.a. compound. About the same time I became an advisor to the High Tech Unit of Barclays Bank. I remember persuading the bank to give a stay of execution to one software house which was having to do likewise, after a major customer had gone down leaving the bills unpaid and another, whose strategic partner had pulled out of the UK.

I spent much of yesterday in meetings planning how to help local authorities and their suppliers cope with similar pressures over the year ahead. The first step will be to give confidence to local authorities and agencies that they can legitimately do short order procurements to make innovative use of IT to remove bottlenecks, improve service and free up funds for investment in shared services to make further savings - and so on.


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